Take a break

Why is it so hard for us to take a break from our work? I’m the biggest culprit! Just the other night, I was working on some pretty technical work late at night (at least for me, but I’m usually in bed by 10 or 11pm) and I was making very little progress. I inherently felt that I wasn’t making much progress, but I thought, if only I could get this one layout right, then I can stop. I knew it was not productive and yet I struggled to step away. Finally, I forced myself away from the computer to bed. I was angry that I didn’t make the progress that I had wanted, but at least I was not spinning my wheels…anymore. So what happened? The next morning, I saw my err, fixed it in less than 5 minutes and I was on my way. Why is it that so many of us struggle to step away when we know that is exactly what we need to do?

Have you read the book Market Mind Games by Denise Shull? And by market, she means the financial markets. If you’re wondering if I’m day trading on the side, I assure you, I am not. The reason that Denise’s book spoke to me is because she discusses emotions as messages. Not in a general way. Not in a think-about-your-emotions,-what-are-they-telling-you way. Literally, when you feel this, here is how to act. This is so important in trading the markets because your emotional reactions can tank a hug win and even take you from bad trade to blowout. Emotions as messages are super important in trading, but I’m convinced they are also essential to success in tech. You see, we often measure productivity in the agile process (as velocity), but what about the factors that lead to increased individual and team productivity. Emotions can help us, if we listen to the message, to be more productive.

Productivity in general means being well rested, eating healthy foods that give you energy and moving your body. Those are all important and I practice them daily. They are the foundation. But what about productivity behind the basics? How much more productive could we be if we could accurately and quickly identify when we are stuck? What if we could know when we are stuck by listening to our emotion messages and taking the appropriate action — to step away. I believe this is the key to more productive output from individuals and from teams collectively. If we look at the factors that affect “stuckness” they can be multifaceted, but frequently involve being:
Sick
Tired
Overwhelmed
Not understanding/Not finding a solution
Unclear

If you are sick or severely tired, mental processing slows down because your body is working harder to keep you at a normal pace of life. If your like me, you see this as a weakness and chastise yourself for not being “tougher”. You take those emotional messages and say, “bear down, toughen up, do better”. It’s funny though because if you are attempting to solve a challenging problem (like I was the other night), challenging because it is unclear or you lack entry level knowledge or you are overwhelmed, the worst thing you can do is “try harder”. You are much more likely to make mistakes. I understand that time sensitivity is major factor in this push to “just get it done,” but I am suggesting that it is counterproductive to productivity.

By moving the task to a different time, I was able to accomplish the task much more quickly. I saw the error of my ways. By the way it was in a different file — I needed to think outside of the box — literally. The window that I was looking at did not have the answer. I needed to look outside of that window, but that solution didn’t occur to me until I stepped away and revisited the problem with time and space separating me and the problem. It’s easy to get stuck by looking for the answer right in front of our nose, but often times, it’s just a bit outside of our viewing window.

There are really two components in this process. First is to identify when you are stuck. For more on “stuckness” considering watching this short video on the concept of Einstulleng by Barb Oakley. It’s the German word for stuck and it plays a strong role in learning theory. Learning theory and productivity, however, go hand in hand. What can be applied in one, can very often apply in the other.

The second component is to take action. This is very hard to do. I think the key is setting up a system before we get stuck. I have a rule that if I am working on the same discrete, well-defined, task for more than 20 minutes without progress, I will step away. Why didn’t I do this the other night? I was tired and maybe a little bit sick so my adherence to my system was off. I’m hoping that by restating this process and doubling-down, I’ll be able to more quickly step away and take a break when I am not making progress. Typically in this tired, sick state, we develop of a mindset of scarcity. Time is scare. Solutions are scare. Our self-talk becomes scare — “this is impossible, there is no solution.” Once you find yourself in that scare mindset, it’s definitely time to take a break. Allow your mind recovery time and space. Your brain can still work on the problem even when you are not staring at your computer screen. In fact, big picture, more robust solutions are likely to come to your mind.

And let’s be honest, sometimes being in front of our computer screen can cause more harm than good. The key is to have the strength to step away and take a break!

Happy breaking!

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